Thursday, September 17, 2009

Animal minds: Are dogs or wolves smarter?

Animal minds are a big topic now.

Always fascinating for me, but I was all the more intrigued when a local panhandler sold me the "homeless" Outreach paper on the street - always a source of news that should be approached with caution - and guess what?

The lead article informs me that "Wolves are more logical than dogs."

My first reaction was, ''Try telling that to the police van driver whose back door features the notice "Police Dog."

Would the notice "Police Wolf" convince anyone that the creature in back of the van was more "logical"?

I have seen Mounted Police (= Mountie) dogs at work. I was impressed by their ability to disable a human by a simple method: One dog blocks his way forward and - on either side - two dogs grab his jacket wrists. If their captive gets really cold, they lie down on him to keep him warm until officers arrive. But, of course, the dogs have been trained to do all this. If they had flunked, they would not be on the force.

So, nonetheless, wolves are more logical than dogs? That means that wolves are more logical than the people who train working dogs. Well, that could be right, could be wrong. Best look into it.

The story got started at LiveScience: "Wolves Beat Dogs on Logic Test" by staff writer Clara Moskowitz, (03 September 2009 02:11 pm ET). Well, it turns out,
The differences reflect an emphasis on different learning styles, scientists say.

"I wouldn't say one species is smarter," said Adam Miklosi of Eötvös University in Hungary, co-author of a paper describing the results in the Sept. 4 issue of the journal Science. "If you assume an animal has to survive without human presence, then wolves are smarter. But if you are thinking that dogs have to survive in a human environment where it's very important to follow the communications of humans, then in this aspect, dogs are smarter."
The article is replete with stuff about how this is supposed to help us understand human evolution. Not the key questions, no.

The skinny: You want a dog? Excellent dogs wait at animal shelters. I am glad if they do not know they are near the euthanasia room.

Don't get a wolf. Get an animal that is completely happy with human society.


Animal minds: Our dog's world is not like ours

"Grr. Sniff. Arf.", Cathleen Shine's review of Inside of a Dog: What Dogs See, Smell, and Know, by Alexandra Horowitz, tries to help us understand doggy minds:
In one enormously important variation from wolf behavior, dogs will look into our eyes. “Though they have inherited some aversion to staring too long at eyes, dogs seem to be predisposed to inspect our faces for information, for reassurance, for guidance.” They are staring, soulfully, into our umwelts [trying to understand our view of the world and how it affects them]. It seems only right that we try a little harder to reciprocate, and Horowitz’s book is a good step in that direction.
Not that examining eyes always provides an answer:
Dogs respond to baby talk “partially because it distinguishes speech that is directed at them from the rest of the continuous yammering above their heads.”
Yes, that is just the problem for the dog. He simply does not know what is happening in human society most of the time because he has not mastered the facility of language. My favourite cartoon for demonstrating that fact, anthropomorphically, was one in which a dog, driven downtown in a car, yaps happily out the window to his neighbour's dog, "Hey, they're taking me to the vet to be [tutored]!"

Sometimes it is a blessing for them, of course. An irrecoverably sick animal does not know that his people have humanely decided on euthanasia. That was always a comfort to me when I signed vets' releases to have beloved cats put down. The cats never knew and never could know, and could not understand why those decisions were made: Any other possible future would be too hard for an animal with their limited intellectual resources to manage.

See also: More animal mind stories at The Mindful Hack.


Hack gets mail: Physicist writes on abuse of spirituality to promote causes

British physicist friend David Tyler writes, in response to "Help wanted ads: God wanted - only for climate change - no other responsibilities"
I sent the following feedback comment to The Telegraph regarding this article:

Lord May thinks that it might be time for religion to take a more prominent role in addressing climate change, saying: “A supernatural punisher maybe part of the solution.” But Christianity is not about constraining people with rules and regulations, enforcing compliance by the use of threats. Rather it is about responding to a loving God. It is about inward transformation. Christians care about the world around us because it is God’s creation, and we are to be responsible stewards of living things and the planet itself. Lord May thinks that the supernatural punisher solution leads to "rigid, doctrinaire societies, but it makes for co-operation." This is exactly wrong.

Co-operation has to come from within – external enforcement may bring uniformity but, as communist societies have demonstrated, the people are crushed. To change thinking about the environment, it is necessary to help individuals see that the planet and its life forms have a value. Secular environmentalists do this by treating mankind as parasitic, but Christian environmentalists do it by stressing that this is God’s world and we have responsibilities as stewards. I wonder whether Lord May, as a prominent atheist, is willing to allow this message to become more widespread in our society.

It never appeared!
Tyler's letter never appeared? Well, where's that feather I use to knock myself over, to "defy the law of gravity"?

Why are people always borrowing my feather these days?

Lord May, who may have utter contempt for spirituality, may merely want to sell propaganda. Of course the environment is important, unless we think it clever to saw off the branch on which we sit. But environment ideas proposed by government must be evaluated on their merits, not on the propaganda.

I am sorry to say that many local ideas have not worked out well. For example, the Toronto "green bin" plan was a disaster because just anything that went bad in someone's fridge does not become good compost merely because it is sealed in a green bin.

Good compost is healthy local plant materials returning to the earth whence they sprang, helped along by shovelsful of dirt that contain the essential decomposing bacteria.

As a gardener, I would never consider using most "green bin" contents as compost - and the City didn't either, I see. After all, we have some valuable topiaries that winter in the High Park greenhouses and summer as centrepieces in our park flowerbeds. They deserve real compost, not poison. But then most plants do.

Toxic "green bin" contents might help kill aggressive weeds, but boiling water poured into a nuisance plant's root system is far safer. Once water stops boiling, it's just water, evaporating or flowing downhill. As for the "green bin" contents, I would incinerate them.

And no, I am not a fan of using spirituality to promote whatever current cause has got the attention of government.

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